Historic District Standards

A colleague recently sent me an article regarding the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards. The article addresses the common belief that, when modifying a historic building, a clear division between new and old must be established. Typically, this “solution” results in the introduction of a deliberately contrasting element that lacks existing context. However, do to add a like-scaled addition that employs similar materials would introduce a false sense of history.

The article’s author expresses his objections to requiring this bright line between new and old. However, this line of thinking is exactly in keeping with the Standards. At the latest meeting of our Historic District Commission, this very issue was raised regarding a window replacement. The Owner had proposed replacing a picture window on her 1870’s home with an identical unit. It was suggested that such a window would never have been used on the house when it was originally built, since glass panes of the proposed size were difficult if not impossible to obtain. Therefore, another option was proposed: introducing an entirely different arrangement, using a pair of grouped window units.

Some members of the Commission took exception to this, as it violates the following Standards:

3. Each property will be recognized as a physical record of its time, place, and use. Changes that create a false sense of historical development, such as adding conjectural features…will not be undertaken.

4. Changes to a property that have acquired historic significance in their own right will be retained and preserved.

Thus, the modified proposal lacks justification under the Standards. Lacking documentary evidence, a change that purports to introduce (or re-introduce) a speculative detail would be conjecture.

I believe this is ill-advised. In general, I would rule on the side of restoration, rather than preservation, even if specific, direct evidence is not available. As a student of history and a design professional, I believe there is room for other options. We know enough about precedent that we can make reasonable assumptions about “what might have been.” And when other options are not only more historically appropriate, but look decidedly better, we must support them.

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